I think Henshaw could have fitted into any other team in the tournament. Nonu was brilliant for NZ throughout the knock outs, particularly his hunger to get outside by using footwork and a change in pace to hold defenses, something he has refined towards the end of his career. Henshaw would have moved to second centre if lining up for Australia but I believe would have been able to offer the same threat as Kuridrani one out.
Would Henshaw have had the same opportunities if he’d come up through another province? Very doubtful; Eric Elwood was prepared to play him from the start of games pretty much straight out of school while in other provinces contemporaries have to wait until their u20s careers are done to even get a sniff. Much of this is due to Henshaw’s temperament and physicality but the balancing act between national and provincial interests never seems more stark after a World Cup tournament. Personally, I’m with team Ireland.
Jared Payne: The much maligned Jared Payne, inheritor of O’Driscoll’s jersey, has always seemed to cop a disproportionate amount of flak from voluble sources in the (non-Ulster) media. Payne is a full back by preference (Twitter handle @thepain15) who has become a centre by necessity. It’s the top-down hierarchy of decision-making that the Irish system provides for, in sharp contrast to the metastasizing influence of the Premiership clubs in English rugby. Schmidt wanted Payne to play at No13, so Ulster played him there, displacing an established outside centre. Lancaster wanted Sam Burgess to play at No12, so Bath picked him in the backrow.
With good awareness, decent handling skills and solid basics, Payne stands out as a Kiwi in the Irish backline. Watching the All Blacks in the knock-out stages, The Mole was struck by the intelligence and accuracy of their play, moreso than their physical prowess or aggression. There’s so much practical rugby knowledge in New Zealand through all strata of age groups and society that it’s hard to envision a coach who isn’t at least competent being given a job at any level – from minis to Third Bs.
For example, there are few teams in the rugby world who could afford to overlook a talent like the former IRB U19 World Player of the Year Robbie Fruean, but the knock on the now 27 year old has been that for all his physical gifts, he isn’t a smart player on the pitch. It’s a deal-breaker in the Kiwi game.
Payne is not blessed with twinkling toes and outrageous acceleration but he is smart, and has become a solid, physical footballer with an awareness of his position’s requirements. What should be of concern to Irish rugby is that there were very few alternatives to Payne with these attributes.
Of further concern is the apparent lack of consistent thinking with regards to continuity and progression in the No13 jersey. All three of the provinces fielded non-Irish qualified outside centres in the weekend immediately following the quarter final round: Ben Te’o at Leinster, Bundee Aki for Connacht and Francis Saili for Munster. Of these players, only Aki is a designated ‘project player’ whose contract runs all the way through to the date of his naturalisation under current World Rugby regulations. Saili is the latest in a long list of test-capped foreigners to pitch up in the Munster three-quarter line, and Ben Te’o remains something of an offloading enigma, a holdover from the Matt O’Connor era that Leinster fans are doing their best to forget. If there had been a few more options then Payne could have competed with Rob Kearney for the full back jersey.
We wrote before the World Cup that “Our real issue as I see it isn’t if our scrum halves get injured but if our centres do.” That was what came to pass and I’m puzzled when I see occasional mention of the players missing for the Argentinian match without Payne being listed. I think Ireland may have missed Payne even more than Sexton in that game, which is quite a feat.
Keith Earls: Earls’ performances against Canada and Romania early in the competition probably made him the first-choice wing in the squad; the latter performance was really everything you’d ask for from a test wing, albeit against a poor side.
So why have we listed here him as a centre, rather than a winger? Simply because he started the last three matches of the tournament at No13. While he was likely Schmidt’s first-choice left wing, he was also the coach’s second-choice No13 going into the World Cup, primarily on the back of his impressive performance against a Welsh shadow selection in the first game of the warm-up series.
The maxim that applied to Jordi Murphy also applies to Earls: versatility is a blessing until it is a curse. The difference is that Murphy is 24 and Earls is 28. The ability to play different positions as a talented youngster will get you on tour and match day squads. There comes a certain point when a player owes it to himself to choose his best position and stick with it.
Under Foley, Earls started seven games for Munster in the No14 jersey last season and five in the No13 jersey; the previous year he had fourteen starts in the No14 jersey and three in the No13 jersey under Rob Penney. In 2012-13, the New Zealander predominantly saw him as a No13, starting him in the position in eight out of nine games. That seems like a bit of a jumble of intent, so what’s the narrative?
In Penney’s first year in charge, the coach selected him as a centre, switching him to the wing for the defining game of Munster’s season, the Heineken Cup semi-final against Clermont; in his second year at the helm, the Kiwi saw him almost exclusively as a right winger, selecting him in the centre only in Pro12 games against the Dragons [home and away] and Glasgow. Foley switched him in and out of the centre and the wing last season, and has started this season with him in the No13 jersey.
Do I think Keith Earls is an international centre? He’s been picked there by two coaches for test matches, so he obviously is an international centre. Is it his best position? No, I don’t think so. Is he a particularly good No13 when rated against his international peers? I don’t think so either.
Earls’ best position is wing and he did himself no favours earlier in his career by publicly saying that he “hated” playing there. Should he have rejected Schmidt’s selection and demanded that he be considered only on the wing? No, that’s pretty dramatic and not what you want from any player in your squad during a tournament. However, if I was advising Earls at this stage of his career, I’d recommend him to concentrate exclusively as a winger and to develop his support game so that he could use his speed and balance to go through gaps by running short lines off the shoulder of the player with the ball.
Darren Cave: I feel confident saying that Joe Schmidt planned to pick Gordon D’Arcy in his squad until he realised just how slow D’Arcy had become in the last nine months. At that stage it became pick’em between Reid and Cave and there are just too many inconsistencies in Reid’s game at provincial level to select him for a World Cup squad.
Like Reid, Cave is a “finesse” player. He has good hands and awareness but he just isn’t physical enough for the demands of test rugby. That’s not unusual, it’s common among many players at many levels as they attempt to make the step up a grade be it from 20s to senior rugby, 2s to 1s or club to provincial.
One of the Moles remembers seeing Zinzan Brooke in a pub in Dublin over an international weekend. Everyone who remembers Brooke playing recalls the wide range of skills but Zinny wasn’t a show pony, he could play hard. What made the biggest impression was just how much bigger Brooke was compared to everyone else in the pub (including a notably gigantic head.)
Darragh O’Se wrote about making step up from club to county during the summer time “Club football gives you a false impression of how good you are. That lovely little dummy solo that bought you a yard of space in a club game might work the first time you try it in county training but it won’t the second time. The second time, the defender will strip the ball and laugh at you while he’s doing it.
The difference is the speed. Not so much speed on your feet or with your hands. More speed in your head. At club level, the drills are designed to improve your skill with the ball.
At county level, even if the drill is exactly the same, the objective is different. It’s taken as given that you have the skill – the purpose of the drill is to do the skill at pace.”
His selection in the squad but non-selection for the Argentinian game highlighted for me Schmidt’s pragmatism (selectorial bias – dilute to taste) and the elevated requirements of top class international competition.
The King is Dead, Long Live the King
The Payne/Earls/Cave selection debate exercised a small corner of the rugby world after the first few rounds of the tournament. In discussion with Matt Williams and Eoin McDevitt on Second Captains, Shane Horgan described Earls as an “instinctive” player. That’s one of those descriptions that tells you as much about what a player isn’t as tells you what he is and was diplomatically selected by a former test centre who made a decision to concentrate on playing winger.
I’m familiar with the provincial mindset of a sizable proportion of the Irish rugby population. The lines are drawn fairly clear: if you’re from Munster then the tries against Argentina were mainly the fault of the Kearney family, if you’re from Leinster then it was Earls’ fault and if you’re from Ulster then it’s a disgrace that Cave was overlooked. If you’re from Connacht you’re justifiably proud of Robbie Henshaw.
None of this helps with the fact that Ireland’s defending against Argentina was dreadful. The line speed was pedestrian, the understanding of what they were trying to do was missing, the communication seemed non-existent and the intensity was way below the level required.
Robbie Henshaw spoke about playing second centre against Australia last year and the importance of awareness and communication “I don’t think I made too many errors, I stayed connected with Gordon D’Arcy and my wingers, we shut them down pretty well. They never really looked like breaking us. We scrambled well in defence and the work Les Kiss did for us during the week worked out.” After the following game against South Africa, O’Driscoll was effusive about Henshaw’s physicality “He has an appetite for hurting people, he has an appetite to go after a hit.”
A number of knowledgeable rugby commentators used to praise Brian O’Driscoll as ‘the best defensive centre in the world’ in the second half of his career. They weren’t just saying something nice because he’d lost a yard of pace. It’s a tough position in which to defend and he made it look like it wasn’t. O’Driscoll himself even went out of his way to discuss the shortcomings of Ireland’s defence which is unusual for someone whose main aim in the media is to avoid any controversy or pointed criticism.
“I’ve never seen Ireland defend as narrow as they did and the disappointing thing for me is that you could see it early on. We never actually fixed it throughout the whole game. You’ve guys in there that don’t know each other and weren’t big communicators. For me, the two biggest losses were Jonny at 10 and possibly from a defensive point of view, Jared at 13, just being able to pull guys out to the width. I’m not shooting down (Keith) Earlsy. He’s played a lot out on the wing so he’s not as up to speed as some people are at 13.”
There was a lot of talk about how Ireland needed to work on developing skills and take more risks after the latest defeat and a lot of that is true and accurate. What wasn’t mentioned is that it was our brutal defence and conceding 43 points that saw us out of the tournament. What needs to be improved most of all is our intelligence and awareness. With a small population, Ireland will always have a smaller pool of athletes to choose from than France or England who could each field two teams at most times capable of competing at test level. We need to become a smarter, more intelligent footballing nation and grousing about provincial bias won’t make that happen. Rivalry is necessary; rivalry to the point of ignorance is just ignorant.